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Molina Monday: What Do the Cardinals Do Now…?

Game 2 of the 2014 NLCS felt something akin to Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. There was a clear point in the game where I was convinced the season was over.

Yadier Molina had left the game, possibly the season, with a painful injury. Trevor Rosenthal was leaking base runners…again. The Cardinals were on the precipice of a gut-wrenching Game 2 loss to go down 0-2 in the best-of-seven league championship series — a hole no team in MLB history has been able to scratch and claw its way out of before.

And then, to paraphrase the great Jim Carrey, it went and totally redeemed itself.

Well, maybe not totally. Wong’s homer was uplifting, yes, but waking up this morning to the nauseating reminder that Molina may be out for the year was a cold reality-check.

What do the Cardinals do now…?

Molina is in a class by himself. Kansas City Royals fans can preach the Sal Perez comparison as much as they want, but the impact Perez — or any other MLB catcher since Ivan Rodriquez — has on the overall game is nowhere near the Yadi-effect. And in October, that effect is magnified.

Now, the absence of it will be magnified.

Even if Molina can somehow, someway stay on the postseason roster and be of some use to the Cardinals, don’t expect him to be able to start or be at 100% ability. Strained obliques are not the type of injury players can usually ignore. They’re painful, persistent, and have no other remedy than simple, mind-numbingly long rest.

Yadi is tough — there’s no doubt about that — but it’s unlikely anyone can “tough” their way through a truly strained oblique muscle. It just doesn’t work that way.

So now the question becomes centered around options. Let’s take a quick-hits, Bird Watching style approach to the rest of it…

Maybe Molina can come off the bench as a pinch hitter…? Not impossible, but not likely. If Yadi can come off the bench and offer anything of value as a pinch hitter in a meaningful situation, then he could conceivably start the game anyway. Any swing by Molina with any oomph! behind it will likely worsen the injury…which means he probably has only one of those in him. And even then, he has to get out of the box and make it to first base for it to matter…something he wasn’t able to do in a tight game last night.

Maybe Molina can come off the bench as a pinch…catcher? Hmmm…this would certainly be creative, but it really only applies in one scenario — a Cardinals vs. Royals World Series. The Royals’ running game is scary, especially in the 7th inning on. But that’s just it…for the most part, the Royals’ regular lineup hasn’t been as much “scary” on the base paths as they have been opportunistic. It’s Dyson and Gore you have to worry about as pinch runners late in a close game, not Hosmer and Butler innings one through six. As the Orioles have shown us in the ALCS, pitchers and proper game-planning can reduce the mad-dashing Royals during the bulk of the game. But when the score is close and Dyson or Gore are sent in to pinch-run…that’s when you need a catcher that can give you a chance. That’s where Yadi comes in.

Yes, it would hurt, but hopefully the right dose of pain meds could alleviate some of that for Yadi. No, the injury would not inherently prohibit Molina’s throwing motion. It’s on his non-throwing left side. That means he can still fire a strike to second base…as long as he can grit his teeth and ignore the searing pain screaming for him to double over as he twists his body for the pop-and-throw. If he could do that, he just may be able to come off the bench and replace Pierzynski or Cruz in a critical base-running situation. And the fact that the Cardinals decided to carry three catchers actually makes it a realistic possibility because Matheny could swap out Molina for his remaining, third catcher on the roster after the throw.

Thank God the Cardinals chose to carry three catchers on the NLCS roster. If Mozeliak and Matheny had decided to replace Sam Freeman with Xavier Scruggs, Mark Ellis, or another pitcher, the Redbirds are suddenly in a VERY different place this morning. Sure, they could disable Molina and replace him on the roster for the NLCS — something they would be forced to do today if only one other catcher was available — but by rule, that automatically makes him ineligible for the World Series roster at the same time. If there is any hope of Molina being available for the World Series in any capacity, the Cardinals must carry him as dead weight during the NLCS. The only way they are able to do that is by adding A.J. Pierzynski to the NLCS roster. The question now is not “can Yadi play in the NLCS” — it’s, “Can Yadi play in the World Series if we get there, and can we get there playing with 24 players on the roster?”

The Cardinals could get a very different A.J. Pierzynski in the postseason than they saw in the regular season. A.J. was a pedestrian hitter at best during his time as the team’s primary catcher this season, but this guy thrives on high-energy competition, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see him getting big hits in Games 3 through 7. And, just for reference, AJP is a .300/.372/.520 hitter with 5 home runs and an .892 OPS for his career in the postseason. Oh…and his salty, “go get ’em” personality may be just what Carlos Martinez needs in Yadi’s absence. Poor Tony Cruz just can’t help C-Mart find his edge out there.

If the Cardinals decide to play short for the remainder of the NLCS, Cardinals’ starting pitchers need to go long in games. Without Yadier Molina available as a true pinch hitter, that limits the Cardinals bench to Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Oscar Taveras, Peter Bourjos, and…well, that’s it. Tony Cruz is no longer going to be an option, assuming AJP is the primary starter behind the plate. If the Redbirds decide to play with a 24-man roster, they might as well be playing with 23, because using the remaining backup catcher won’t be much of an option. That means early exits by starting pitchers (think fifth or sixth inning) — or extra inning grind-fests — will expose the Cardinals’ short bench. That said, don’t be surprised to see Matheny pinch hit Cruz in the right situation late in a game with the intention of putting him in to finish the game at catcher.

*Note: Get ready for Matheny’s signature move — the late-inning double-switch to remove Matt Holliday from a close or tied game. With such a short bench, he’ll look to make it stretch by delaying the pitcher’s at-bat in subsequent innings. One way to do that is to switch out Holliday’s spot (assuming he made a recent out last inning).

Immediate beneficiary of a Molina injury? Peter Bourjos. The forgotten man on the St. Louis roster, Bourjos will likely get more pinch hit and late-in-game defensive opportunities via the double-switch.

— GO CARDS!!!

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